Rev. Petter, it will be recalled, told his readers that our Reformed fathers taught that there are conditions in the covenant. Here are your words brother, “The Reformed fathers also were not adverse to speaking of conditions in the plan of salvation. And if we may trust the statement of scholars about such historical data, then both Ursinius and Olevianus, the authors of our Heidelberg Catechism, maintain the terms conditional promise.
“But it is still more interesting that the theologians who carried on the battle with the Remonstrants do not hesitate themselves to teach that there are conditions in the covenant even when they are engaged in fighting the doctrine of conditions as the remonstrants held it. Prominent among these were the famous Contra-remonstrants Gomarus and Walaeus, co-authors of the Standard “Synopsis of Purer Theology”. And even the monumental Staten Vertaling of that day has a forword to the New Testament which informs us that this New Testament means that covenant which God made with man whereby He gives him eternal life under certain conditions (italics, Fetter’s). A half century later the prominent theologian Turretin gives a long discussion on the conditions without thinking of denying them. Also from the editorial in the same Standard Bearer of May 1, in which the “open letter” is found, it appears that the Netherland Theologians, Dordrecht, 1618-19, spoke of conditions of the covenant.”
I must return to this disclosure of yours, Rev. Petter, to your letting us see what the Fathers taught. You withheld some important facts. , What these facts are we learn from a paragraph contained in the Dogmatic of the late Prof. Herman Bavinck,—a paragraph that reads, “(DUTCH REMOVED).” I’ll translate this, “In the first period the Reformed freely spoke of conditions of the covenant. But when the nature of the covenant was more deeply thought into and had to be defended against Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants, many in their hearts objected to the usage of that language and avoided it”. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, derde deel. (Derde o veranderde uitgave). Bldz. 241.
Such was the experience of many of the Reformed of that first period, Bavinck tells us. In a footnote he mentions a few names. They are names of such men as Olevianus, Cloppenburg, Witsius, Franken, Brakel, Comrie, Vitringa, and Coccejus. These theologians and many others of the reformed objected to the use of the phraseology in question and to the idealology it denotes. For the two cannot be separated. It means that as they were contemplating the nature of the covenant, that whole condition-theology rose before their minds for what it is—a miserable heresy. And they saw the utter futility of defending the truth of the sovereignty of God’s grace with themselves discoursing on the covenant in the terminology of Arminius. Hence, they avoided that terminology. Of course, brother Petter, this change of heart on the part of the many of the Reformed has weight with me. It supports me in my conviction that I am reading the Scriptures aright and that your condition-theology is false doctrine. Yet I, no more than you, stand in awe of the fathers. Our only authority in all matters of faith is the Scriptures, so that though many of the Reformed had not repudiated that phraseology, I would still be pronouncing it the vehicle of untruth.
Calvin did not have to do battle with the Remonstrants. He passed from the scene before they made their appearance. Hence, he was not driven by their subtle philosophies to take up anew the study of the covenant and to re-examine his terminology. The result was that he continued to speak of conditions of the covenant. In after years there were some among the Reformed who did likewise. They spake of conditions of the covenant even while fighting the Arminian doctrine of conditions, as if, so I remarked in one of my articles, it is possible to do both without violating every law of logic. As I also remarked, it shows what fallible men also the fathers were and of what strange intellectual blunders they were capable. It also shows how wrong it would be for us to live by the traditions of the Fathers and not to live solely by the Scriptures.
As to Bavinck, he also states his personal stand regarding the point at issue. He writes, “Actually (eigelijk) there are in the covenant of grace, that is, in the Gospel, by which the covenant is made known, no requirements and no conditions (voorwaarden). For God gives what He requires; Christ finished all; He did not bring to completion regeneration, faith, and conversion in our stead, but He merited these graces for us; and the Holy Spirit realizes them in us.”
The right way of saying this is to state simply that, with God working regeneration, faith, and conversion in His people, there are no conditions in the covenant; and that, this being true, the promises of God are unconditional and unfailing.
The statement of Bavinck to the effect that there are actually no requirements in the covenant is not true. It is true that there are no conditions in the covenant; but there are requirements, commands, in the covenant. That God gives power to believe no more renders the command to believe unactual than it destroys faith as an act of the believer. Bavinck’s reasoning here is illogical and unscriptural. It plays into the hands of the Pelagians, whose teaching it is that the command to believe can be actual, genuine and well-meaning on the part of God, only if it be concluded than man originates his own faith. Bavinck’s mistake, which is the mistake also of the Liberated in the Netherlands, is that he identifies the two concepts condition and command or requirement. The dictionary tells us that we deal here with two wholly distinct ideas. To deny, on the ground that God is the author of faith, the actuality and reality of the command to believe is to deny the reality of the accountability of man and of the sovereignty and holiness—the moral will—of God. What God requires and demands of man is not that he originate faith and obedience in him, but that he believe by the mercy and power of God. That command is as actual and real, certainly, as is the work of God whereby He originates faith and obedience in man.
But if the command to believe is actual even with God originating faith in man, must it not be said by dint of that reasoning that the condition in the covenant is just as real and actual even with God fulfilling it? The question is pointless. For the fact of the matter is that there are no conditions (voorwaarden) in the covenant in that implicit in such a conception is the idea of a human will able to originate faith,—thus a will limiting God. Such an idea does not underlay the command to believe. And I beg to remind my readers that now, too, I am using my terms according to the meaning that they have in the dictionary. As we have seen, according to the definitions that the dictionary gives of “condition (voorwaarde) faith, conceived of as a condition, is a circumstance that limits God; it is a cause that would produce in God the will to be gracious to such who believe of their own free will—free in the Pelagian sense of the word. And we do not right ratters here by saying that God originates faith. All we do by such a saying is to disguise the heresy by camouflage. For if God is the author of faith, He is not limited by it; and then faith, the will to believe on the part of man, is not a condition (voorwaarde) in the covenant. To nevertheless speak of faith in this way is to deceive ourselves and God’s people. On the other hand, we may and must speak of commands and requirements in the covenant. For the definitions that the dictionary gives to these terms are not of a kind that render the statement heretical. The statement is true; it sets forth sound doctrine.
It must not be supposed that I allow the English dictionary to tell us whether a view of doctrine is scriptural. I repeat what I said before; all we allow the English dictionary to do is to define English words. But it stands to reason that only the Bible can tell us whether the ideas and concepts with which English words are associated are contained in the Holy Writ. We derive the meanings of English words from the English dictionary or we fabricate meanings for such words. Rev. Petter does the latter with the word condition. That is one of his great mistakes, as already has been explained.
What our study has revealed is that the word condition as a sentence element of the statement to the effect that God saves men on condition of their faith and repentance is a bad term; but that the doctrine according to which God demands of His people in the covenant that they believe in Him through Christ and keep His covenant is certainly sound doctrine. And these demands are actual. We must not with Bavinck deny, on the ground that God is the author of faith and obedience, the reality of these commands and requirements in the covenant. Because then we play into the hands of the Pelagians. I know, we deal here not with a problem but with a mystery. And the mystery is how faith and obedience can at once be man’s act and God’s work in man; how, in a word, the command to believe can be real and genuine with God the author of both. It is a thing that simply defies our powers of penetration and in all likelihood will continue to defy our powers of penetration everlastingly. At bottom it is the mystery of human accountability and divine sovereignty. Both are real and actual, but it takes a mind like that of God to comprehend how both can be actual. And we are but creatures. God has revealed these mysteries unto us not that we should be troubled and vexed by our inability to comprehend them and in our sinful vexation go prating about the problems and contradictions in which the contemplation of God’s works involve us, but that believing though not comprehending we should worship that great God.
And here you have my answer, Rev. Petter, to your wrong reasoning contained in your reply to the last letter of Rev. H. Veldman in the Concordia for June 23,—a reasoning that reads, “And supposing that we should substitute the words ‘obligation’, ‘calling’, ‘requirement’ (which I deem possible). The phrase in brackets is from the pen of Rev. Petter), would we not have the same problem? Would we not have to say that also the relations which Rev. Veldman suggests are not real because God Himself provides for their fulfillment by His power and grace in His people? That offers no solution, I am convinced.”
No, Rev. Petter, we do not have the same problem. We have no problem at all. What you mean to say in your determination to compel us to admit the imagined rightness of your error is that, if the reality of the condition in the covenant be denied, consistency demands also the denial of the reality of the command. But this is not true. The teaching that there are commands in the covenant is not, as is the case with the idea that there are conditions in the covenant, excluded by the Scriptures on account of the conceptions with which the English words command and requirement are associated in the English language. There are commands in the covenant; and they are real and actual also as imposed upon the reprobated though God sovereignly wants them in hell and accordingly withholds from them the power to believe and hardens them through the command. Such is the plain teaching of the Scriptures. But where does Holy Writ teach that God saves men on condition (voorwaarde) of their fulfilling them? Quote me one text and show by your exegesis that such is the doctrine contained in it? It can’t be done. Also here, then, your whole reasoning is pointless. And so, your concluding statement, “No, we must see the reality of those conditions and make them a living part of our theology,” conveys no sense. For how can we see the reality of that which does not exist and make it a living part of our theology? Your repeating that sentiment over and over in your refusal to face the real issue and come with exegesis is becoming real tiresome. What it indicates is your inability to refute effectively my argument with the Scriptures. And that is not a wonder. My argument itself is scriptural. It cannot be refuted with the Scriptures.
But the principal point that I am arguing in this writing is that when Rev. Petter stated that, to use his own words, “the Reformed Fathers were not adverse to speaking of conditions”, he was not telling the truth. The statement is too sweeping to be true. For, as we have now seen, the eyes of many of the Reformed were opened to the danger of speaking of conditions in the covenant and accordingly they refrained from the employment of that phraseology. And Bavinck’s stand was that actually there are no conditions in the covenant. Such are the facts.
But in the sequel Bavinck says that the covenant of grace nevertheless assumes this conditional form, the purpose being to acknowledge man in his rational and moral nature; to treat him also in his fallen state as created in God’s image; to establish him on this highest plain, where the issues are those of man’s eternal weal and woe, responsible and inexcusable; and to cause him to break with sin and enter the covenant consciously and without constraint.
But the use that Bavinck here makes of the terms actual and form won’t do, his saying that there are actually no commands in the covenant but that nevertheless the covenant assumes an requiring form. That would come down to this that the commands of God are such not actually, not as to idea, but only as to the form of their words. And if there were conditions in the covenant, that would hold also of them. Bavinck’s teaching here is impossible. It comes down to this, that God is not actually commanding His people; that in communicating His will to men He was uttering words as disconnected in His mind from their significations in human speech; or that He was just talking without meaning what He said. How with such a view could it be maintained that man is a responsible agent and that God is the holy and the sovereign one? One of two: 1) If there are not actually conditions in the covenant, neither, then, is the covenant conditional as to its form; or 2) If the covenant is conditional as to its form, then there are actually conditions in the covenant. And the same holds of the requirements of God. As they stand Bavinck’s statements are worthless. The fact of the matter is this: There are no conditions in the covenant; the covenant therefore is unconditional also as to its form. There are commandments in the covenant; the covenant therefore is also commanding as to its form.
Bavinck doubtless was troubled by the “if” clauses of the Bible of the type with which we are occupied, “If thou keepest my covenant, all these blessings will come upon thee. . . .” Certain it is that the current doctrine of Holy Writ forbids taking those declarations to mean that there are conditions in the covenant; that God saves men on the condition of their faith. But what is to be done with that “if” Here in all likelihood was Bavinck’s difficulty, which he thought to have solved by saying that though there actually can be no conditions sin the covenant, it nevertheless is conditional as to its form. My exegesis ofand taught us how that “if” is to be dealt with. Your teaching, brother Petter, is that there are actually conditions in the covenant. That “if” gave you no difficulty at all. You simply rendered it “op de klank af”, on condition that as closing your eyes to the current doctrines of the Scriptures in the light of which every single verse in the Bible must be explained. And then you told your readers that you had the Fathers on your side by saying that they were not adverse to speaking of conditions in the covenant. But we know better now. Many of the reformed were adverse to the employment of that phraseology. They avoided it, their eyes having opened to heretical ideologies denoted by it. Such are the facts.
G. M. Ophoff
The Concordia for July 21 contains Rev. Petter’s answer to Rev. H. Veldman’s last letter. The answer of Rev. Petter has a paragraph that reads, “Also the Rev. Ophoff at one time freely spoke of ‘conditional promises’ and defended them.” (Standard Bearer, Vol. II, pages 46 and 47). I will reply to this in the following issue of the Standard Bearer.
G. M. Ophoff